7 of Leigh Bowery's most iconic outfits
To mark 25 years since he passed away, we pay tribute to just a few of the club legend, performance artist and designer's most memorable ensembles.
Having moved from his native Australia to London in the early 80s, Leigh Bowery became one of the most notorious talents to emerge from London’s alternative nightlife scene. He was a club-land legend, performance artist, fashion designer, singer (with the bands Raw Sewage, and Minty), and creator of some of the most mind-boggling looks of the 80s and 90s. He was also a life model for the painter Lucien Freud, whose large-scale nudes of Leigh now hang in the world’s most prestigious galleries. Sadly, Leigh died from complications arising from AIDS at the end of 1994. He was only 33 years old.
But Leigh's influence still ives on -- in nightclubs, galleries, museums, theatres, books, documentaries and even a musical, Taboo, staged by Boy George in the early 00s. And Leigh’s presence continues to be felt upon fashion runways, too. Designers including John Galliano, Rick Owens, Charles Jeffrey, Gareth Pugh, Maison Margiela, Walter Van Beirendonck and Alexander McQueen have all channelled Leigh’s stunning creations throughout the past two decades.
Subsequent generations of clubbers, artists and performers have also absorbed Leigh’s attitude, ideas, shock- tactics and visuals. These range from Michael Alig and the NYC Club Kids of the 90s, to image-conscious singer-songwriters like Lady Gaga or Christeene, not to mention the new wave of Instagram creatives, such as Salvia, similarly using their bodies and faces as canvases upon which to reimagine themselves again and again. With looks like these, it's easy to see why Leigh's influence is so enduring.
This was one of many looks Leigh paraded at his legendary club night, Taboo. The combination of Copydex dripped all over his head, like ink-on-a-boiled-egg, with graphic make-up, plus self-made finery which accentuated his burly physique, all exemplified his ethos for Taboo: “Dress as though your life depends on it or don't bother.” Taboo swiftly gained notoriety for its debauched and gleefully-trashy atmosphere; the era’s most wildly-attired clubbers, fashion victims, gender-benders, drag queens, artists, designers and pop stars all clamoured to get in. Even i-D got in on the madness -- Leigh was the cover star for 1987's The Plain English Issue.
Surprisingly, though, Taboo’s host-with-the-most wasn’t precious about his appearance while at work. By the end of a typical night there, Leigh would be drunkenly rolling around on the dancefloor, clutching a bottle of poppers, his make-up smeared and his clothes either crumpled or long-since discarded. Taboo lasted just over a year, closing down after a tabloid newspaper article exposed the club’s sex and drug-fuelled antics. Despite its brief lifespan, it's still cited as one of London’s most decadent and influential club nights ever.
1988: Fabric faces, going places
By the late 80's. Leigh’s outlandish looks were attracting attention way beyond the London club scene. He appeared in an ad for Pepe Jeans, and more infamously, a 1988 episode of BBC1’s The Clothes Show, leaving millions of viewers gobsmacked by his appearance and antics. Filmed at Harrods, in front of gawping shoppers and bewildered tourists, Leigh sashayed and twirled around the chintzy in-store cafe like he owned the place, to a soundtrack of Divine’s camp HI-NRG classic " Walk Like A Man." He was interviewed by the programme’s presenter (and former i-D Editor) Caryn Franklin, discussing his latest heavily-sequinned and “fabric face” creations with customary eloquence and tongue-in-cheek humour.
Aside from TV appearances, Leigh was also creating a buzz in the art world. In 1988, the Anthony d’Offay gallery in central London offered him his very own show, in which he would exhibit himself as a living work of art. Visitors to the well-attended five-day event could watch Leigh for hours on end through a one-way mirror, which divided the gallery space in two. Leigh could see his own reflection, but was unable to see or hear the audience. Within this isolating installation, he wore a selection of his most distinctive looks each day. The natural exhibitionist passed the time posing, preening, stretching, napping, draping himself upon a chaise longue or doing the occasional little dance. Leigh’s spontaneous daily ‘performance’ was accompanied by a specially-recorded low-volume soundtrack of random traffic noises, beeps, bleeps and splutters, while the aroma of banana essence periodically wafted through the exhibition space to further heighten the WTF factor. His triumphant gallery debut was a witty-yet-eerie exploration of narcissism, exhibitionism and voyeurism, some 20 years before selfies and social media normalised such traits.
1990: Normcore yet more
Leigh is widely heralded for the extremity of his performative looks. But his ‘casual’ daytime appearance was, in some ways, even more bizarre. Whether shopping in his local Sainsbury’s, in Stepney, East London, or holidaying with friends in Cornwall (this pic shows him on a Cornish beach with a massive jellyfish), he would usually wear dad-like crimplene slacks, or shapeless grey shorts, combined with a similarly normcore beige anorak. So far, so boring? Well, no. Leigh would subvert this everyday attire with a very cheap and obvious-looking wig perched atop his head. He would also appear unusually tall – due to him sporting a secret pair of stilettoes hidden inside seemingly-humdrum trainers. The overall effect deliberately evoked that of a creepy serial killer, or a dodgy perv lurking at the school gates. Leigh no doubt relished the unease his faux-drab style caused to passers-by, as he tottered about the East End streets on his cunningly disguised high heels!
1991: Shape shifter
In the early 90s, Leigh increasingly experimented with shape, proportion and distortion – transforming himself into an even more sculptural, sometimes nightmarish, character than ever before. He also developed new methods to partially or totally conceal his face. This brilliantly-absurd look – including a ‘pregnant’ bump, knee-length skirt and humongous footwear formed from fabric-covered foam - manages to be simultaneously cartoony, while demonstrating Leigh’s considerable skill as a craftsman. The giant powder puff-style headpiece, which years later would inspire similar designs from Alexander McQueen and Maison Margiela, was first fashioned by Leigh from layers of fluffy tulle, with a subtly concealed zip at the back.
1993: Born to shock
You definitely won’t find this look at Primark! Here’s Leigh ‘wearing’ his wife, Nicola, strapped naked into a sling and positioned upside down with her face in his crotch. Why? This is the basis for Leigh’s controversial ‘Birthing’ performance, which he, er, delivered on various occasions in London and at New York’s Wigstock festival in 1993. Backstage, Nicola was strapped into place and totally concealed under one of Leigh’s roomy frocks. On stage, Leigh suddenly groaned and moaned mid-song, as though going into labour, then lay down and ‘gave birth’ to Nicola, who emerged red and sweaty from between his legs. The birth was ‘accessorised’ with a fake umbilical cord made from a string of sausages, bitten apart by Leigh. Two decades later, Rick Owens replicated the woman-in-a-sling concept for his SS16 collection, acknowledging to the New York Times that in doing so he had “knocked off” Leigh.
1994: PVC-U later
Here's another of Leigh’s dressed-to-thrill looks, honed into shape with foam and encased in shiny PVC, from a series of wearable constructions that he worked on with his talented costumier friend, Lee Benjamin. The resulting lopsided-legged, dominatrix-like apparition proved terrifying to many. Not least to the local minicab drivers who would routinely transport Leigh from his gaudily decorated council flat to nightclubs and events. Squishing his cumbersome self across the car’s back seat wasn’t the only practical difficulty Leigh faced when going out, though. Many of his looks, such as this one, were not only hot and heavy to wear but so physically constricting he often couldn’t even have a piss during a hectic night of boozing and dancing! In keeping with the old adage, ‘You have to suffer for your art’, Leigh no doubt felt such discomfort was a price worth paying in exchange for absolute self-expression.